Many people feel sorry for prisoners during the holidays because they’re separated from their families in relatively joyless spaces, comforted only by cold regret and crappy food.
As someone who spent six Thanksgivings in prison, I know it’s not some Pollyannaish cliche to tell you that anyone can find something to be grateful for, even in prison. The inmates may not be thrilled on the holiday, but they’re fine.
Worrying about prisoners on Thanksgiving helps them far less than scrutinizing how the holiday’s history affects how they’re treated during remaining 364 days of the year.
The Puritans started thanksgiving — the act, not the feast. The feast belonged to the Pilgrims after an especially bountiful harvest, but Puritans were the genesis of the attitude of gratitude in America.
The fact that they could give thanks without needing to stuff themselves made the Puritans sound like an easygoing bunch. But they weren’t the most empathetic people. They came to America to find religious freedom only for themselves — which was pretty hypocritical since they they were persecuted as religious dissenters in England. They thought that forgiveness couldn’t be given by anyone but God — which meant they didn’t think they, as mortals, had the power to absolve anyone for their transgressions.
Which means they never forgave anyone.
Much of modern justice is influenced by these Puritan conventions. We deny formal forgiveness to people who come home from prison by branding them with Scarlet Fs –felony convictions — that prevent them from securing housing or jobs, or obtaining professional licensure.
Our criminal codes contain hundreds of laws that don’t have what’s called a mens rea requirement, which means that the person doesn’t have to intend to do wrong to be guilty. We persecute and imprison people who make good-faith errors — because they’re not as pure as we want them to be.
This, of course, led to the Puritans’ most lasting contribution to American legal history: the witch hunt, an unrelenting drive to rid society of wrongdoers — some of whom had no idea that they were doing wrong — because the Puritans unilaterally decided they could never be redeemed. The Salem witch trials ended with 24 wrongful executions, 140 unnecessary incarcerations and even more reputational damage.
Considering that the population of the Puritans’ world was slightly over 50,000 at the time of the hunts, it makes their rate of wrongful conviction, five hundredths of a percent, relatively comparable to our confirmed rate today, where we have 2,296 formal exonerations — and thousands more pending claims of innocence — in a country of 329 million people.
Puritans were prone to weirdo corporal punishments, like boring through people’s tongues with hot irons or cutting off their ears, that make modern-day abuse of prisoners — boiling them to death in a hot shower like guards in Florida did to inmate Darren Rainey, throwing them down flights of stairs as New York corrections officers did to prisoner Samuel Harrell — seem less of the human rights violations that the United Nations says they are.
Puritans cornered the colonial market on humiliation; punishment just wasn’t the same if the community didn’t know what a degenerate they thought you were. We do the same, although we’ve refined and expanded the ways we embarrass wrongdoers in the 21st century. We don’t need signs around our necks in the public square; instead, society gossips about us through background checks or registries and posts our pictures in digital stockades — those mug shot websites and that indelible news coverage of our stories that Google searches resurrect years later.
Of course, a little rectitude isn’t a bad thing; we all need to behave properly. And shame can be titrated down to healthy doses that keep us from doing things like double dipping our chips at Thanksgiving celebrations or dipping into our employer’s bank account.
While the Puritans didn’t bloat themselves to give thanks, their excesses came in indignity and scorn for wrongdoing. And we can’t pretend that we don’t follow their example today.
People in prison need less sympathy on the Thanksgiving holiday and more examination of its history’s influence on modern justice throughout the year. If people are willing to embrace public forgiveness and redemption and reject the Puritan underpinnings of our legal system, we can make it more humane and more effective for everyone.
Chandra Bozelko is a former inmate in a maximum-security facility, and she writes about criminal justice.